Mechanical engineering is one of the oldest engineering disciplines, burdened with long-standing traditions. However, many students are deterred by the field’s abstractness. The discipline is also characterized by a significant imbalance in the ratio of males to females involved.
“Focusing on the application, rather than theory, could be a means to draw women into engineering,” proposed Dr. Fiona Zhao, assistant professor in mechanical engineering at McGill University.
For Zhao, the dearth of females in engineering was plainly evident throughout her education and career. At the start of her graduate studies at the University of Auckland, she was the only female among the faculty members and students in her program. As Zhao’s career progressed into industry and academia worldwide, the trend failed to change. She was often the only female, and the youngest member on research teams. Inarguably, navigating through this “all-boys club” was intimidating at first, but it also motivated her to strive for more and hold her ground.
“The best part about research is that you’re judged on your work,” explained Zhao.
Zhao’s own journey into mechanical engineering was due in part to rebellion and the other part, to coincidence. Both parents, working as professors in the biological sciences, encouraged her to follow in their footsteps; but Zhao opposed them. Instead, she chose to study electromechanical engineering at the prestigious Beijing Institute of Technology. Fascinated by the field’s rapid pace, she continued to pursue her PhD at the University of Auckland.
Her current research follows three themes: manufacturing informatics, sustainable manufacturing, and additive manufacturing technology. The recent media spotlight on additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, has led to increased demand. Through optimization and simulation of manufacturing technologies, Zhao’s research aims to design innovative model development methods in both medical and aerospace sectors of the field.
In particular, Zhao is interested in integrating classical computer-aid design (use of computer programs to create 2 or 3D graphical representations of physical objects) with internet-based manufacturing (e-manufacturing). Through developing these novel methods in manufacturing informatics, she aims to make manufacturing more efficient and sustainable. As manufacturing processes of goods are often subdivided and sent offshore to remote locations—such as parts of a plane that are produced in different parts of the world and assembled at a central location—the ability to efficiently coordinate each step is crucial to product development success.
“The production of the Boeing Dreamliner has been delayed multiple times due to inability to streamline manufacturing information,” added Zhao.
With the vehement push from both government and the public for greener and more sustainable production, companies are putting a more conscious effort into refining their manufacturing process. On this front, Zhao focuses on developing new metrics and databases, for evaluation and design theories related to products’ sustainability
By emphasizing the utility of engineering, Zhao hopes to inspire the next generation of females to venture into this exciting field, and provide more perspectives in mechanical engineering. As a start to solving this problem, Zhao proposed that a mentorship program in which high school and undergraduate students meet monthly—an ideal outreach method.
The need to address such gender imbalance in engineering is felt not only felt by faculty members, but students as well. Initiatives such as POWE (Promoting Opportunities for Women in Engineering) have attempted to raise awareness of the issue and encourage high school students to explore prospects in engineering. Despite such efforts, the proportion of female undergraduates enrolled in Engineering at McGill University has remained practically unchanged for the past 10 years: it was 27.2 per cent in 2002 and 24.5 per cent in 2012. With more initiatives such as the mentorship program Zhao proposed, we will hopefully see a rise in this number.